Beyond the biofrontier: Balancing competing uses of the biomass resource
Tapping Europe’s supply of sustainably available biomass to replace fossil fuels is a promising method to mitigate climate change, but biomass is (and will remain) a limited resource. Unused or underutilized wastes, trimmings and agricultural residues can provide substantial amounts of feedstock to convert into liquid fuels, to combust directly for energy, or as feedstock for industrial production of biomaterials and biochemicals. As Europe seeks to reduce its carbon emissions in the coming years, biomass is likely to be in high demand for a variety of uses.
This study considers the optimal end uses for biomass resources in Europe by assessing the environmental costs and benefits of using biomass for these different sectors. Each of these three competing uses could, in principle, grow to use all the sustainably available biomass in Europe in the long term.
This analysis compares the three competing uses for biomass across four impact categories, concluding:
- GHG Impact: If bioenergy were to displace current grid-average electricity, then this would deliver a marginally (10% on average) greater carbon saving than displacing petroleum. Biochemicals generated roughly the same GHG reductions as the heat and power pathways. However, the benefits of biomass use for heat and power are highly sensitive to assumptions about the mix of electricity that will be displaced by increased bioenergy generation. Assuming that coal power would be preferentially displaced would make heat and power appear to be the most attractive use for biomass, but in reality it is likely that increased bioenergy capacity will displace a mix of energy sources.
- Non-GHG Environmental Impact: While the environmental benefits from displacing coal use are substantial, other impacts to air, soil quality and water demand from the different competing uses and conversion pathways were comparable to one another, and generally lower than fossil fuel-derived products.
- Economic Impact: The largest contribution of the biomass sector to employment is expected to be in feedstock collection and cultivation, which occurs independent of end use. Moving forward, it is fair to conclude that more complex processes such as manufacturing biomaterials or liquid fuels are more labor-intensive than combustion for heat and power. The benefit of import displacement from liquid biofuels exceeded other competing uses because these fuels displace costly petroleum imports.
- Role in long-term decarbonization strategies: Despite the expected development and market penetration of other low-carbon technologies, it is highly likely that fossil energy will remain in demand for both heat and power and liquid fuels through to 2050. Biomass could therefore play a constructive long-term role in decarbonizing either of these sectors. Furthermore, a variety of niches such as the demand for liquid aviation fuels and baseload power help to ensure long-term biomass demand.